Career Resilience Tool: The Career Journal
Dear Unemployed Job Seekers: A Thank You Would Be Nice

Antidotes to Imposter Syndrome


Last week, one of the women I've been working with in a Career Club sent me an email asking me about what it was like when I first started working for myself--was I as freaked out about self-employment as she is now by a stretch position she'll soon be taking on. At the end of her email, she asked me this:  

What I want to know is, how long does it take to turn into the person who actually 'feels' comfortable, confident, and competent on the inside, rather than the person who believes they are a fraud in these three categories, and taking a new setting hour by hour and hoping they don't get discovered in their inept-ness.


I love when people ask me questions like this, because they force me to think about my own experiences in new ways, to find my own resilience which isn't always an easy thing to do. Here's what I wrote back to her:

Let me answer the easy questions first. When I started my business, it did feel like a risk of sorts, but it also felt like something I HAD to do. It was the only way I could find to pursue work that to me felt interesting and meaningful. What felt riskier (or at least more soul-crushing to me) was continuing to do work that didn't build on my strengths or feel very useful in the world. I just got to a point where the risk of stagnation and burnout seemed greater than the risk of starting my own business. 


I was fortunate in that I didn't have to deal with a ton of financial risk in the process. I started my business when I did in part because we could live on my ex-husband's salary at the time. It took me a couple of years to get to the point where my net profit replaced the salary we'd lost, but we were OK with that because we'd sized our life to be OK with one salary. So I was more fortunate than a lot of people who, on top of everything else, must take a financial risk. 


But those aren't answers to your real question. Your real question is did I feel like a fraud inside and, if so, how did I get over it? 


Here's the thing. There are days when I feel very good about myself professionally and then other days when I feel like I don't know what the hell I'm doing at all--a complete, inept imposter.  The days when I feel confident, competent and comfortable are gifts.  I can do things to encourage the gift to come more often, but I can't control it all the way. I can only try to create the fertile ground for the gifts of grace and ease to come to me. 


So to create more "good" days, I try to focus on what is going well, not on what is screwed up. I try to focus on bringing out my strengths and using them, rather than thinking about my weaknesses and trying to "fix" them. I try to see myself as someone who is learning all the time and sometimes learning means being uncomfortable and challenged and "out of your league," so what can I learn from those moments about myself? I try to surround myself with people who are positive and supportive and nurturing and to limit my time with people who are negative and who drain me of my energy. And I try to work with problems and issues that really engage me on an emotional level so that I'm able to keep myself going, even if I'm not feeling good about myself just because the problems themselves need to be solved. 


I also try to share with people when I'm feeling out of my league--to say "I'm not sure what to do here and it makes me feel stupid and incompetent to say this." Ninety nine times out of 100, people will melt when you say this. Everyone can relate. 


Notice how often I say "try" in all this though, because I'm not always successful in doing any of those things. So then I'll have a day or a series of days where I feel like I'm a big failure or I'm having no positive impact in the world or I'm pushing things that other people don't really want. That's when it helps me to go back through my journals (journaling is HUGE, HUGE, HUGE in all of this) and see the times when I was down like this before and then the next day, something clicked and I was changed back into confidence. I see that my fear and anxiety about myself is a fleeting thing and that this too will pass. 


You are embarking on a big journey and it's been awhile since you worked outside the home, so it's not surprising that you're feeling anxious and concerned. You're going to make mistakes at first--that's part of learning. You're going to feel like you're a fraud because you haven't been a nurse before--it isn't a full part of your identity yet. Accept that. Don't fight it. Don't beat yourself up. Just try to stay with it and and your emotions and give yourself kudos for every small win. 


My last bit of advice is to "fake it till you make it." When I have to do things that feel really uncomfortable and out of my league, I spend some time doing grounding/centering exercises, I set my intention for how I want things to go, and then I just go in and pretend that I'm someone else making it happen. I don't put my "real" self out there--I put on a mask. Most of the time that takes me far enough into it for me to then see that it's working and I experience the real success that I wanted. Faking it is one of the best things you can do in those circumstances. 


Now my question for all of you--How do you deal with feeling like an imposter? 


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Imposter syndrome?! Deep breath, because this one provokes a lot of anxiety. I had it big time when I started my most recent job. I kept thinking, "When are they going to figure out they made a mistake?" In transitioning to self-employment this past December I had it even worse. Now I couldn't say I work for ____ . I had to provide all my credibility myself, in a sound bite that the listener can understand and remember. Yikes. I like the "fake it til you make it" approach.
My best way to cope: Practice. Practice projecting confidence. Practice my message. Equally important if somewhat contradictory is, be genuine. So if you don't know something say you don't, and that you'll be glad to find out. Or, if you mean to introduce yourself confidently and instead stammer, laugh and ask for a do-over. And third (I can do this on a good day): remember your worth as a person and a professional. You carry that with you whether self-employed, employed by another, or unemployed. I still have at least a momentary flash of panic when I have to introduce myself in a professional group. I am still in the process of faking it til I make it and get over imposter syndrome. Maybe it will always be there waiting to jump out at me!

Nancy, I love the idea of asking for a "do-over." That is one of those genuine approaches that can carry you far when you feel like you've flubbed it. And I also think you bring up a good point about feeling confident when you don't have the ability to introduce yourself as being from a particular organization. When you're unemployed or self-employed, you don't have anywhere to hide--it's just you, out there sort of "naked." So you have to draw much more on your own internal sense of value, rather than feeling some kind of value based on the role you play in your organization. Very different feeling and so I think we tend to get way more nervous about that. I do agree with you that imposter syndrome is probably always waiting. And if it isn't, then maybe you aren't taking the kinds of risks you need to take (noting this to myself. . . )

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